Steve Moffat continually seems to be saying goodbye to River Song–not because he wants to see her go, but because he enjoys watching her leave. This can partly be chalked up to how he introduced her in the first place. We first met River in the last hours of her life, way back in Season 4. Though the Doctor chose the save her by uploading her to the database for all time, the irony was that we didn’t know who she really was yet, or how much that would mean.
The Doctor: “I think I’m going to need a bigger flowchart.”
River Song is a character who will be tied mostly to the 11th Doctor’s tenure. At first it seemed that they were romances going in opposite directions linearly, and that his last time seeing her would be her first time meeting him. but it was never that straightforward. Their timelines were jumbled messes, which is partly why we’ve now mistaken her departures for the end several times, most recently in “The Name of the Doctor,” when she appears as already dead, post meeting the Tenth Doctor. Once you’ve returned as a ghost, there’s little chance we’ll see you again, no?
But Moffat couldn’t help but pair up his favorite recurring character with the latest incarnation of the Doctor. It was a smart move. River was her weakest when tied directly to the companion. The “conceived on the TARDIS/brainwashed into being obsessed with the Doctor” made her character smaller and less unpredictable. Song’s best appearances are when she’s not calling the companion “mom,” or seeming to have a life that does nothing but revolve around The Doctor, but is free as a bird to be doing whatever crazy scheme she’s involved with this time. And though one of the joys of her romance with the Doctor being the visual of an older woman with a younger man is gone with Capaldi’s casting, this simply makes their romance one of a more mature couple. It also provided Moffat with a chance to create that bookend to her original arrival in the series. In the last adventure ever, she doesn’t know who the Doctor is, in an echo of the way the Doctor didn’t know her all those years ago.
River: This is where genocide comes to kick back and relax. Do try the fish.
It’s at this point in the review that I usually turn to discussing the companion. In this episode, that turned out to be the Doctor himself. Moffat has been playing around with the role reversal for a while now. Capaldi was basically second fiddle to Maisie Williams in “The Woman Who Lived,” for instance. Clara has been toying with becoming the Doctor outright for two seasons. But in those instances, they still knew who the Doctor was. He had the key to the TARDIS, he pulled the levers, and when push came to shove, he came up with the last second plan to save the world, and they acquiesced. Here, River has her own key and Capaldi is merely following her around. She’s pulling the levers, piloting the TARDIS, pouring drinks from her own private bar, and leading the charge. The result is that Capaldi could, for the first time, fully sit back and play the straight man to someone else’s whimsical insanity.
The topsy-turvy results were delightful, as the Doctor is suddenly on the receiving end of the condescending compliments: “You’re very quick!” He’s the one with information that could solve things, but is being ignored because he’s just not expected to solve the current calamity. And, in the scene that is destined to become an instance classic, it is he who finally gets to “discover” that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside.
The Doctor: My entire understanding of physical space has been transformed! Three-dimensional Euclidean geometry has been torn up, thrown in the air and snogged to death! My grasp of the universal constants of physical reality has been changed… forever. Sorry. I’ve always wanted to see that done properly.
As for the plot, River, it turns out has been rather busy since we thought we saw her for the last time in “Angels Take Manhattan.” (It is established that was the last adventure in her chronology.) She’s gotten married a couple more times, once to a hot but rather useless Ramone, and once to King Hydroflax. In the latter case, she argues that she was really just marrying the diamond embedded in his head. In the former case, the poor thing doesn’t remember marrying her in the first place, because she wiped it from his memory in a fit of piqué. Neither marriages matter much. The king is dying from the diamond embedded in it, and his mechanical body sacrifices the head in order to go find a new one. The body has also killed off Ramone, in order to use him as a temporary head. it even considers killing off her third husband, The Doctor, to have his head, but as we all know, that’s not happening. But just in case River is tempted to have the place scan for the absent Doctor, he finally reveals himself with a touchingly whispered “Hello Sweetie.”
And, much like many of Moffat’s plots, it turns out that all this rubbish and insanity and diamond chasing and selling (or failing to selling, as the diamond winds back up in River Song’s possession, and the ball to crack all the banks in the world and get the money is jammed on the Hydroflax body so all the firewalls in the world could attack it at once), is a prelude to the Doctor’s most proper goodbye to River once and for all. Her diary is almost full. All of those adventures we’ve always heard about but never seen, including Jim the Fish, are in there. One last night, at the Singing Towers of Darillium is all they have. (A dinner the Doctor has long promised and never delivered on, at a restaurant the Doctor has built with the diamond proceeds, and then gets reservations at in four years later at Christmas, while River sleeps.) The sonic screw driver that the Tenth Doctor was so shocked to see her own way back at the beginning (or the end) is the first and last Christmas present the Doctor will ever give her.
River: When you love the Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back. And if I happen to find myself in danger, let me tell you, the Doctor is not stupid enough, or sentimental enough, and he is certainly not in love enough to find himself standing in it with me!
The Doctor: Hello, sweetie.
It is interesting that since Moffat started running things, his Christmas specials have not just always been very Christmas oriented, but for the last few years, they have always been about endings. It was Christmas 2012 where we met and lost Clara, the Victorian version. It was Christmas 2013 where we saw not only River as a ghost, but the end of the 11th Doctor. Last year, the episode was actually entitled “Last Christmas,” even though Coleman gave Moffat a reprieve and changed her mind last-minute, causing the tacked on ending to keep her for another season. This too was a “Last Christmas.” It was also a return to the idea of Doctor Who as fairy tale, as the Doctor denies that Happily Ever After exists, and River corrects him. “Happy ever after doesn’t mean forever. It just means time.”
And though River and the Doctor have finally reached the end of their time, it will still be a happy ever after. After all, it turns out the nights on Darillium are twenty-four years long. That’s time enough. For River Song’s last adventure with the Doctor before Season 4, they lived happy ever after.